A riff on the classical adage, "Don't judge a book by its cover," let's first examine this more common expression a bit closer to see how it applies to wine, spirits and the pursuit of restaurant profits.
But its popularity, aside from its terse and catchy qualities, can be attributed to the fact that we humans are hardwired to make snap judgments based entirely on superficial qualities. The phrase has near-universal applicability because we are genetically programmed to make shortcuts in our decision-making mental processes – a trait that is favorable when, say, debating whether or not to run from a pack of snarling wolves, but less so in a civilized setting where higher thought is required.
Alas, our Cro-Magnon brains can only evolve so quickly, and as such we are left with many objectionable side effects. At first glance, you will deem a man in a suit to be more successful than one in baggy gym clothes. A car that looks sleek will be considered faster than a boxier counterpart. A book with an artfully designed cover will sell more books at its launch than one with a Spartan cover. And most people can't help but favor wines with colorful labels, fun fonts or slightly irregular bottle shapes.
We are slaves to our own superficiality and any resultant attribution biases that emerge. This may seem misanthropic but in reality it's a good thing. If we weren't making snap judgments all the time, we'd be stuck deliberating on ideas and actions to the point where we wouldn't get anything done.
Backtracking a little, I say 'most' people because even though the majority of us would like to view ourselves as having a sophisticated knowledge of wine and a palate to boot, the sad fact is that most of us are still living in the dark ages when it comes to oenophilia. Unless they have a reference guide on hand or a sommelier certification at home in a picture frame, 99% of patrons you will encounter won't be able to tell good from great wine, nor would they have any success in a blind tasting. (I tried my expertise at an Opimian Society blind taste test contest many years ago, placing third, a proud result.) They will come to your restaurant with only a vague notion of what they already like and a budget to work within. Their judgment about what bottle to get, or to even buy a drink in the first place, will be based upon sticker shock, menu design, bottle design, each wine or spirit's actual name, their moods at the time and any rapport with your staff.
Only some of these are within your control, and for each we can then discern how to best leverage or overcome this social fallacy.
To start, sticker shock pertains to the relationship between your customer's wallet or outlook on spending and the dollar value listed on the menu. Although you have tangential control over how spendthrift your average patron is via the actual brand positioning of the restaurant, there is only so much you can do to help someone avoid sticker shock as inventory price controls are expertly honed by a purchasing manager or F&B director to be as fair as possible.
Naming has similar limits whereby a certain guest will have an incumbent affinity for a specific country of origin or the nomenclature of a particular winery and its oeuvre. But even then, you can manipulate your offerings to fit customer expectations. You may decide, for instance, that because you operate a hip urban restaurant, every bottle in stock should have an equally funky name to enhance the branding. Changing your entire inventory in this manner is not advisable, though, because it's a hefty expenditure for nominal returns. Instead, knowing that some people will purchase by name alone means that you should have a 'diverse cast' on the menu.
With bottles kept in the cellar and out of sight for most restaurants, purchases are made based upon the way wines are presented on the menu, their list prices and the waiter's recommendations. When the bottle arrives at the table, the expectation is a standardized Bordeaux or Burgundy shape with a classic mix of serif and script fonts on a white-background label. Any deviations from this will be met with surprise and likely augment the dining experience by offering a bit of extra visual stimulation. While I would never advocate filling the cantina with only the most bizarre designs around, much like with naming, a few oddball additions purposefully approved for their eccentric shapes, colors of glass and sticker artwork can certainly prove to be beneficial.
Most within your control and also what's cheapest to remedy are your menus and what your servers bring to the table. For the former, there are lots of psychological tricks you can use to further imbue your branding, downplay the price of a spirit or even coerce guests to select certain bottles over others. Give your art directors an idea of what you hope to accomplish then let them work their magic.
For the latter, this harks back to the reason for why I started this series of articles – advancing your staff's wine education so that they can render that knowledge into sales. The more your client-facing team members know about wine or alcohol in general, the better they can develop a quick rapport with customers to not only upsell but also to increase overall meal satisfaction. Suppose, for example, that a group has narrowed down its wine selection to two choices. A smart waiter might then bring over the both bottles for a little show and tell. Armed with the above facts about our inherent superficiality, this staff member would likely be more conscious of any prejudgments based on bottle design alone, and then allay these thoughts by addressing them outright or through a series of logic-based statements.
Any which way you put it, snap decision making based on surface appearances will permeate every aspect of your hotel revenues, not just your wine and liquor sales. Hopefully, by accepting that we are all subject to these cognitive limitations, we can then push past them for healthier returns on your restaurant covers.
Hotel Mogel Consulting Limited
3600 Yonge Street, PH 36
Toronto, ON M4N 3R8
The world’s most published writer in hospitality, Larry Mogelonsky is the managing director of Hotel Mogel Consulting Limited. His experience encompasses hotel properties around the world, both branded and independent, and ranging from luxury and boutique to select-service. Larry also sits on several boards for companies focused on hotel technology. He is a much sought after public speaker. His published work includes five books: “Are You an Ostrich or a Llama?” (2012), “Llamas Rule” (2013), “Hotel Llama” (2015) and “The Llama is Inn” (2017)..and “The Hotel Mogel” (2019).